Tag Archives: greenhouse gas emissions

Climate Change, Divestment & Human Health

A few years ago, a rising tide of people argued that news organizations had rolled over and, without necessarily intending to, were helping skew the climate change debate in favor of the “merchants of doubt.”  Over the past few years, the pendulum has swung back and there is more media coverage of the facts on the ground. The latest observations and studies from the world’s scientists are being widely reported again.

So, at least in the United States, more people are again generally aware of what is happening and what is projected to happen – rising ocean levels, increased frequency and intensity of storms and the like. We’ve come back on track to where things were headed about a decade ago in terms of popular awareness. (Many of our fellow citizens on planet earth never took the side trip.) A clear majority of Americans believe that global warming is real, and are at least generally aware of the major environmental impacts.

But, whether you are American or from some other county, try this experiment. Ask people you know about the connections between global warming and human health. At best, some people have a sense of anticipated direct effects from extreme weather events – people in parts of India and Europe getting slammed by unusually long heat waves, or powerful tornadoes in the mid-western United States. Some will mention the problems with extended droughts in Africa and Australia. That’s probably about it. A recent study by the Yale Project on Climate Change indicated that only 18-32% of Americans understood some of the main human health implications of global warming. The gap in global warming human health literacy is incredible – but not surprising given the lack of media attention and the efforts of those who want to erase all concern.

Describing the projected impacts concisely is not straightforward. That’s because the number of angles is gigantic, and there are lots of interconnected loops and complex feedback paths. But, here’s a short-list of some major drivers and effects that public health and medical professionals note:

Water:

  • falling fishery  yields
  • regional water scarcity
  • access to potable water

Land:

  • falling crop yields
  • massive migration away from coastal areas
  • more frequent and severe wildfires
  • migration and shifts in insect populations

Air:

  • extreme heat events
  • more frequent and severe storms
  • rising ground level ozone

With a little bit of imagination (or spending some time looking at reputable work on the web), it’s not hard to guess how these things are really bad from a human health perspective. Some of the drivers amplify existing human health problems that people and communities already struggle with. Others create health crises where there weren’t any – with major challenges around food production and access to water leading the pack.

All this is additive to the more immediate direct health problems caused by burning fossil fuels in the first place. The experiences of the western countries with smog in the 20th century and the current pictures of what coal is doing to China make that pretty clear.

All these problems will first hit those least able to fight the effects: the elderly, the poor, the chronically ill, and children.

Tying this back to fossil fuel divestment, the moral argument around climate change and human health is obvious. As with other aspects of the divestment debate, there is also a powerful financial aspect. It makes far more sense to prevent the problem by lowering our global carbon footprint now – instead of creating an astronomical bill in the future to pay for all the health problems we will face.

The argument for divestment is about saving the environment. It’s about saving us. There is no space between. As Joanna Macy has said, “Our earth is not a supply house and a sewer. It is our larger body. We breathe it. We taste it. We are it.”

Hopefully, journalists and the media begin to step it up on this side of the story, too.  In the meantime – divest now.  And then tell everyone you know about it – including local and national media outlets, and your representatives in state and federal government. Tell them to get moving now. Money and votes make things happen.

Merchants of Doubt vs. Investors in Faith

A new documentary based on the 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt” opened in US theaters a couple weeks ago. The book’s authors describe their journey into  “how a loose–knit group of high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades.” No surprise that a hot topic central to the trip was global warming.

Unfortunately, it would be more than a little naïve to think that the premise of the documentary isn’t true. On an annual basis, the fossil fuel industry’s revenues are well north of $4.5T. That’s a lot of money and a lot of deeply entrenched interests. If you have seen the “clean coal” ads over the past decade, you know that companies in the industry have been perfectly willing to aggressively mislead the public. Then, we have the fact that a central character in the story is a fellow named Marc Morano. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that he’s not one either. The idea that anyone would take Morano’s analyses of climate science seriously is incredible –  an indication of how cynically “successful” his efforts have been.

Another angle of this story relies on tired and simplistic depictions of the people who care about the health of the planet. There is a sad irony in the fact that we are often painted as being naïve about how financial and economic systems operate. This caricature is a standard fallback for capitalism’s true believers – a group that ignores the lessons of history, who argue that unfettered market forces will always find a sweet spot that bridges what is good for people with what is good for business and financial well-being. That’s about as naïve as you can get.

More and more investors are demonstrating an increasingly nuanced approach to the connections between their money and a sustainable world. According to a new Morgan Stanley study, a surprising “71% of individual investors are interested in sustainable investing.” Women and millennials in particular are connecting the dots. Not surprisingly, the study also shows that the interest doesn’t yet translate into action for all of those people. Nevertheless, the fact that more than 2/3rds of the investment population is thinking about sustainability is a powerful thing – especially since the societal and environmental forces that are creating that interest are going to become more powerful over time.

Maybe, just maybe, another set of recent data hints at the leading edge of another fundamental shift. Over the past couple centuries, energy has become an  essential (perhaps ‘the’) driving component of economic growth and human progress. In the absence of a clear focus on energy efficiency and renewable power generation, it’s not at all surprising that greenhouse gas emissions have grown in lockstep with economic activity. The good news is that, according to an early analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China’s carbon emissions fell by 2% last year while their economy grew by 7.4%. The estimates of the wider global economy show a 3% rise in the economic growth in 2014 with carbon emissions remaining flat. This “decoupling” of lockstep economic growth and emissions is unusual. The hope going forward is that this is a sign that regional efforts like China’s focus on pollution reduction and the European Union’s ahead-of-schedule push to 20% renewable generation by 2020 are game-changers.  Whether or not 2014 was the start of something big remains to be seen. But, if the well documented growth in global clean energy investment enables the decoupling to accelerate at the pace needed, 2014 will turn out to be a pivotal year – for the planet and for investors.

Fossil fuel divestment is one way to show that you are not being snowed by the chaff that the “Merchants of Doubt” are happily (and very effectively) tossing out into the world. Reinvesting in the new energy economy is a way to support the continued growth of businesses whose products and services push emissions down,  and enable us to move farther and faster toward a new energy economy.

Your investments matter. Join the community of investors who have faith in science, and in humanity. Divest now.